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Sluiter Rolls on Into 56th Year
September 13, 2006

At the end of August, a host of librarians, faculty and staff gathered on the third floor of the Hekman Library at Calvin College for a reception in honor of a legendary colleague.

Barbara Sluiter, 76, has worked as a cataloging librarian in the Hekman Library for 55 years, during which time she has changed not only campuses and classification systems, but also made the switch from cards typed by hand to computers.

“I’ve always been amazed at how well she’s swum through all the changes,” says Francene Lewis, a Calvin cataloging librarian and Sluiter colleague.

A 1951 Calvin graduate with a BA in Latin, Sluiter began her career in the Hekman Library as a student worker (paying her tuition, through a strange coincidence, by working at the Hekman Cookie Company.)

Upon graduation, she foresaw two careers, neither of which interested her:

“I thought all you could be was a teacher or a nurse,” Sluiter says. “My senior year in college, I finally got to see an advisor. She gave me one of those punch card things. I punched it. And she asked, ‘What do you want to be?’ I didn’t want to be a nurse, so I said, ‘A teacher, I guess.’ She said, ‘You don’t sound too thrilled about it. Have you ever thought of being a librarian?’”

Sluiter became a full-time Hekman employee and enrolled as an extension student in the University of Michigan’s Library Science Program, where she earned her master’s in library science in 1956.

In 1952, a year into her career at Hekman, the library began to shed its Dewey Decimal classifications and convert to the Library of Congress system, a task that consumed several years. Sluiter cataloged every entry.

During her tenure at Calvin, the library collection swelled from 50,000 to nearly 1 million items.

One bio of Sluiter claims, “She has probably touched every book that the library owns at least one or more times.”

In 1970, the library shifted location, from the Franklin St. to the Knollcrest campus, and Sluiter shifted too. And in 1976, the Hekman began a more profound shift into the barely emergent electronic age when an OCLC cathode ray terminal (a rudimentary computer catalogue) was installed in the cataloging workroom.

Beginning in 1990, when the library acquired its first online catalog, Sluiter entered the computer age in earnest.

“It’s a huge shift in terms of mindset,” Lewis explains. “It’s not just the change from the typewriter to word processor, but it’s a sea change in one way. It’s a whole different way of thinking about stuff. It’s no longer tangible. It’s digital. We had librarians who worked her who couldn’t hack the new system.”

On December 31, 1991, Barb “retired” from her role as head of cataloging, continuing to volunteer 20 hours a week in her old capacity. A year later, she resumed her job on a part-time basis.

The library has been the beneficiary of her colleague’s ongoing presence, Lewis says.

“In terms of our library’s data, whenever we’ve switched from one computer system to another, from one type of data, knowing that you can go talk to Barb and say, ‘Barb, What in the world, I came across this weird thing, What do you think this means?’ That is a huge thing. There are a lot of places that don’t have near as clean a catalog as we do because we’ve had such consistency. To think we’ve had only two main catalogs watching over the catalogue since the 1950s, that’s pretty big.”

At the reception in her honor, Sluiter reminisced about the days when there was a snack bar in the library, when bats used to sneak into her workroom and when she would discover student sleeping in the stacks during exams. She received a congratulatory visit from 97-year-old former Calvin president William Spoelhof and several special gifts.

She also received what may be, for a librarian, a signal honor. She became an entry, listing her vital statistics, education, reading and travel habits and other information, in Calvin’s catalog.

“We thought,” Lewis says, “how appropriate.”

~written by communications and marketing staff writer Myrna Anderson